Tag Archives: Belgrade Theatre Coventry

Just My Cup of Chai

THE GAME OF LOVE AND CHAI

Belgrade Theatre, Coventry, Tuesday 24th April, 2018

 

Marivaux’s 18th Century French farce, The Game of Love and Chance, gets an update from Tara Arts and Nigel Planer of The Young Ones, no less.  It’s a remarkably good fit, translating the action from the French bourgeoisie to a present-day Indian family in Britain, where notions of class and caste dictate social mores and aspirations.  Widowed Kamala-Ji is keen to marry off daughter Rani, who is a successful, independent young woman who works as a solicitor.  Rani wishes to retain her independence until she can marry for love, if there is such a match to be made.  She faces pressure from trashy cousin Sita, who contrasts with Rani in every way possible.  A prospective groom is on his way to size up his potential wife… Rani and Sita concoct a plan to switch identities and do some sizing up of the groom for themselves.  Unbeknownst to them, the groom has hatched an identical plan and has switched with his unlicensed Uber driver…

The script is peppered with bang up-to-date references along with Punjabi (I think it is) words and phrases but the performance style is all traditional.  There is a declamatory aspect to the delivery, direct audience address, and much heightened posing and posturing.  The characters are drawn with broad strokes and the action is almost cartoonish at times.  It is, all of it, hilarious.

Director Jatinder Verma has an eye for comic detail and doesn’t miss a trick, keeping things snappy so this fabulous confection has no opportunity to stale.  The action is broken up with Bollywood song-and-dance numbers, all performed with gusto and fun – where the French originals would have featured courtly masques or brief balletic interludes.  Claudia Mayer’s set gives us a garden of privet archways for the comings and goings, with a backdrop of suburban semis peering over the top.  Her costumes strongly signal the characters (and their disguises) and there is a glorious nod to Marivaux in the finale, courtesy of designer Adam Wilshire.

Goldy Notay is absolutely delicious as matriarch Kamala-Ji, with Deven Modha great fun as Rani’s camp brother Sunny.  Ronny Jhutti throws himself into the role of Nitin – the driver masquerading as the groom – with relish, while both Kiren Jogi’s Sita and Sharon Singh’s Rani clearly differentiate when they are pretending to be each other.  Singh is especially good, bringing more than a hint of snobbishness a la Penelope Keith to her portrayal of the snitty Rani.  Adam Samuel-Rai makes an energetic, passionate, even neurotic suitor, as the handsome Raj.  The entire ensemble rises to the demands of this kind of material, popping off quickfire asides and larger-than-life reactions with skill.

This fast and funny production reminds us that the old theatrical forms and conventions still have currency and that people have much in common whatever their cultural background.  A fabulous treat of a show; I loved every second.

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Adam Samuel-Bal and Sharon Singh wrestling (with their emotions)

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Playing Doctors and Nurses

MINDGAME

Belgrade Theatre, Wednesday 14th March, 2018

 

Prolific writer Anthony Horowitz turns his attention to the stage with this small-scale thriller very much along the lines of mega-hits Sleuth and Deathtrap – plays that have a small cast, an intriguing plot and more twists than a Chubby Checker convention.  The set-up: we meet Styler, waiting in the office of Dr Farquhar, in an upmarket mental health facility aka hospital for the criminally insane.  Styler, dictating into a recorder, doles out exposition: he is a true-crime writer come to interview notorious inmate, the serial killer Easterman, for his next project; the doctor has been keeping him waiting for two hours…

We pick up right away that things are not what they seem.  Contradictions in the dialogue and, more subtly, changes in the set: a video screen for the window changes imperceptibly, for example.  As soon as Farquhar shows up, the plot gets into motion.  The doctor is something of an oddball – and the discerning audience member will be trying to pre-empt the surprises and guess the outcome.

It’s played with conviction.  Andrew Ryan’s Styler and Michael Sherwin’s Farquhar complement each other well, with the doctor more often than not holding court, adding to the weirdness and the unsettling feeling that something bad is about to take place.  Making up the trio is Sarah Wynne Kordas as Nurse Paisley – or is she?  Violence erupts, power shifts, layers of falsehood and diversion are stripped away… There are a few gasps from the audience who don’t see things coming, but the plot, rather than thickening, seems diluted by each new turnabout, and there are holes in the logic you could drive an ambulance through.

What we are left with is a bit of a mess, an exercise in unpleasantness that doesn’t measure up to the aforementioned greats of the genre.  It’s well-presented and director Karen Henson focusses our attention and gives us surprises at all the right moments but for me the play doesn’t gel, and mental illness as entertainment has surely had its day. I’m not crazy about it.

Not as clever as it pretends, Mindgame teases, amuses and puzzles but is ultimately unsatisfying.

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Michael Sherwin and Andrew Ryan enjoy a cosy chat

 


Thrilling

THRILLER Live

Belgrade Theatre, Coventry, Tuesday 6th March, 2018

 

This electrifying tribute show is doing the rounds and this week it’s Coventry’s turn to become reacquainted with the back catalogue of the ‘King of Pop’, Michael Jackson.  We have several vocalists and a troupe of dancers performing hit after hit, but the songs are broken up by occasional verbal addresses during which facts and figures are rattled off: in this year, he sold this many copies… and so on.  Nothing controversial is alluded to.  Biographical detail is little more than dates of changing record companies and the release of iconic albums.  All this is relayed to us by two of the male vocalists, Britt Quintin (who has Jackson’s spindly physique) and Shaquille Hemmans (who has Jackson’s falsetto to a T).  It’s a bit like a Show and Tell session in school.  If so, they’d get top marks for effort.

The first half concentrates on Jackson’s early career, including boyhood hits – these are performed in the main by female vocalists Adriana Louise and Ina Seidou – and it’s a nostalgia trip and a half.  I’ll Be There, I Want You Back, ABC – and disco greats like Can You Feel It and Blame It On The Boogie.  The choreography takes us back to the bygone eras of the 60s and 70s and the costumes are spectacularly in keeping, rocketing us back to the golden age of Top of the Pops and Pan’s People.

There is a bit that makes me cringe at first when our hosts Britt and Shaquille divide the audience in two and teach us responses, and it gets a bit panto, but we all get into the spirit of it.  We are pumped and ready to boogie, but instead the number ends, we are plunged into a blackout during which we fumble for our seats, and what follows is a big production number of Remember The Time, which is from Jackson’s later output.  I am ready to bop but am forced to wait until later.  This odd change of gear aside, the production is irresistible.  By the way, the ‘Egyptian’ choreography for Remember The Time is superb.

Rory Taylor’s searing She’s Out of My Life is a highlight, but the hits and highlights keep coming.  The second half gives us all the biggies: Billie Jean (Eddy Lima, the most Jacksonesque of the performers – like an MJ who has done some serious gym time) thrills with the effortless moonwalking – all of Jackson’s signature moves are here: the broken robot, the crotch-grabbing (although this is used sparingly); Smooth Criminal is gobsmackingly staged; but Thriller is the one we’re waiting for, and it does not disappoint.  Dancers in zombie garb totter through the audience, gathering to perform the iconic routine. (Quick trip to Pedants’ Corner: the tropes mentioned in the lyrics belong to the Horror genre, not strictly speaking Thrillers… but what do I know?  Perhaps “This is Horror, Horror Night” doesn’t work as well…) Earth Song is the most emotive number of the night and by the time we get to Black Or White the entire place is ‘getting down’.  The music is played live by a tight ensemble, led by Andy Jeffcoat on the keyboard, with an authentic sound that comes across as fresh and contemporary.

There is a more interesting show, dramatically speaking, yet to be written about Jackson’s phenomenal, troubled life, but this exhilarating act of worship is just the tonic for a chilly evening in Coventry – or anywhere else, for that matter.

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Not Bad: Eddy Lima and the zombies


LOL-alot

SPAMALOT

Belgrade Theatre, Coventry, Tuesday 27th February, 2018

 

We all know them, the bores who can spout reams and reams of Monty Python scripts and manage to suck all the humour of it, as if just saying the lines is enough, when what matters, perhaps more than the clever-silliness of the words, is the delivery.  The challenge for any Spamalot cast is to go beyond reciting the familiar lines and aping the original performers.  Yes, we expect certain intonations; yes, we expect men as unconvincing women with squawky voices; and yes, we expect iconic scenes from the film (Monty Python and the Holy Grail, for those not in the know – P.S. Where have you been?) – Show’s creator Eric Idle wisely gives us all of this with plenty of new material to make something fresh, something new, something with its own life.

I say ‘fresh’ and luckily, I still mean it.  This is my fourth visit to the show.  On previous occasions, in the role of King Arthur I’ve seen comedians: Sanjeev Bhaskar, Phill Jupitus, Marcus Brigstocke, each of whom bring much of themselves to the part.  In this touring production from Selladoor, we have an actor, the excellent Bob Harms, who plays his Arthur as a character.  It makes a lot of difference.  Harms has a touch of the Graham Chapman to him, but also a little bit of Rowan Atkinson’s Blackadder, I think; it adds up to a silly, delightful performance, holding the show together.

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All alone, Bob Harms

Harms is supported by equally silly, equally skilful knights.  Johnathan Tweedie’s Lancelot is a ridiculous brute, Norton James’s Galahad transforms from peasant to preening matinee idol; Stephen Arden’s cowardly Sir Robin is a lot of fun, while Mark Akinfolarin’s Sir Bedevere provides a lot of the physical comedy.  Coconut-bearer Patsy (Rhys Owen) nails the show’s most well-known song (Always Look On The Bright Side of Life – filched from Life of Brian, of course).  Sarah Harlington’s scene-stealing Lady of the Lake is magnificent: her vocal skills and parodies are remarkable – the best I’ve heard in the role.  I make special mention of Matthew Pennington, an absolute scream as Prince Herbert, among other roles, but really the comedic skills of the entire troupe are marvellous to behold.

The show is just as much a parody of musical theatre as it is a retelling of the Arthurian legend.  Knowing, self-referential and satirical, the show exposes and celebrates the genre’s conventions, wrapped up in the peculiarly British revelling in silliness the Pythons represent.  Spamalot is Monty Python-lite, lacking the edge, the sense of daring the group had when the Circus first took flight.  There are enough references to the Python oeuvre to satisfy fans, alongside topical allusions that keep the show current.  The show stands as an entity in its own right – I met someone who’d never seen it before, hadn’t seen the film, and she loved it.

And I was more than happy to reacquaint myself with the show’s delights.  Being a touring show, the production is somewhat scaled down (e.g. only two chorus girls) but there is no stinting on talent and fun.  A laugh-out-loud-and-long couple of hours with some great tunes, excellently presented and charmingly daft.  I loved it.

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A right Herbert: Matthew Pennington, backed by Marc Akinfolarin and Rhys Owen

 


All Puns Blazing

THE GOOD, THE BAD AND THE UGLY SISTERS

B2, Belgrade Theatre, Coventry, Friday 8th December, 2017

 

One Christmas tradition that doesn’t get me bah-humbugging all the way home, is the Belgrade Theatre’s annual alternative production to the (excellent) pantomime in the main house.  The B2 studio becomes home to a show for the grown-ups, in a genre- as well as gender-bending cavalcade of bad jokes.  This year, riffing on Cinderella, writer-director Nick Walker gives us a Western with a cast of four women, playing cowboys.  There is a plot, a chase to beat the bad guy to some buried treasure, and along the way we encounter a range of tropes (the saloon, the train, the Native American guide) as well as a host of larger-than-life characters performed by this versatile and industrious quartet.

Doc (the mighty Katy Stephens) is our protagonist and narrator.  Such is her wry charm, we let her get away with the worst puns imaginable without rising up and lynching her.  She is supported by the Magnificent Three: Miriam Edwards, Laura Tipper and Aimee Powell, in this relentless barrage of fun.  Some of the jokes are as old as the hills and the corn is as high as an elephant’s eye, but there is plenty of invention in the pun-fire, lots of new material to make groan-ups of us all.

Walker evidently spends the rest of the year writing jokes for Christmas crackers, and is possessed of a particular kind of genius.  For example, the treasure could be silver, could be gold – it could be either ore.

I can hear you groaning from here.  This type of thing is perhaps an acquired taste.  It is certainly right up my alley.

Performing with indefatigable brio, the cast pull out all the stops to keep the laughs coming, and the knowing looks add to the fun.  We are not expected to take a second of it seriously – but the cast certainly do, playing with commitment and skill – the comic timing is superb; and the production values are certainly no joke.  The Belgrade’s in-house production services dress the show in quality costumes.  I love the tumbleweeds that punctuate the script’s worst excesses and the horses are hot to trot.  A simple but effective set with a sunset backcloth serves for all locations, allowing the performers to do most of the work, while the sound effects (Rob Clews) and the lighting (Chris Munn) evoke the genre while augmenting the humour.

It’s an hour of fantastic fun and it makes me think we don’t see many Westerns on the stage.  Yes, there are musicals and opera set in the Wild West but no ‘straight’ plays?  It’s a gap in the market perhaps I can head off at the pass…

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The Magnificent Four: Laura Tipper, Aimee Powell, Katy Stephens and Miriam Edwards (Photo: Robert Day)

 


Magic and Mess make for success

CINDERELLA

Belgrade Theatre, Coventry, Friday 1st December, 2017

 

Writer, director and jovial genius Iain Lauchlan is back at the Belgrade for another triumphant year with a winning pantomime that blends traditional with new elements.

Oddly, it gets off to something of an underwhelming start, with Fairy Godmother (Maggie Robson) springing on and giving us some sub-Disney waffle about dreams.  What, no rhyming couplets?  She introduces us to our heroine straight away – a winsome Alice Rose Fletcher, looking every inch the part and with a sweet singing voice.  This is a Cinderella we can take to right away, but her song is somewhat wistful and reflective, and not really an opening number.  Energy levels crank up when the chorus of villagers pour on – and we’re off at last!

The ugly sisters, Dyspepsia (Lauchlan in his element, it appears) and Listeria ( an equally excellent Greg Powrie) are a superb double act.  Ostensibly the villains, they are too enjoyable to be bad.  The crux of villainy in this version is found in Cinderella’s stepmother (Maggie Robson, doubling, and having more to get her teeth into), a delightful snarling diva.

Adding to the fun – shovelling it on – is Craig Hollingsworth as Buttons.  A natural crowd-pleaser, Hollingsworth is a cheeky chappie, a quick wit with impeccable timing.  His scenes with the sisters are the comic highlights of the show.  An extended slosh scene involving waxing strips and fake tanning equipment is relentlessly funny in an old-school way.  Slapstick still works.

An iconic scene we don’t get is Buttons trying to cheer up Cinderella when she can’t go to the ball.  Cut because of running times, I suspect, but Hollingsworth gives us hints of the pathos that is an essential part of the Buttons character.

In this performance, a charming Vicky Field plays Prince Charming – Lauchlan gives us two principal boys to balance the two dames – and Letitia Hector gives us an elegant and full-throated Dandini.  In panto, no one bats an eyelid about cross-dressing and gender and blind casting.  Everyone is accepted.  Any joshing is good-natured.

From the chorus there is strong support from Lashane Williams and Vicki Stevenson in several featured moments, but undoubtedly this is the Ugly Sisters & Buttons show, and we don’t mind that at all.

There are moments of wonder – the transformation scene is straightforward in its execution but still works its magic on the children – plenty of audience participation, with some individuals being ‘volunteered’ to prove themselves good sports – and the time-honoured story still comes through.  There is something about Cinderella that strikes a chord with everyone: the worthy underdog whisked away from servitude; but it’s more than a lottery win.  Cinderella’s generosity of spirit is what sees her through.

One final point: I look around the stalls and from what I can see, the people of Coventry have turned out from all corners.  It’s quite simply the most diverse audience I’ve seen at a pantomime.  And everyone’s enjoying this peculiarly British tradition and having a great night at the theatre, and I think this is the kind of Britain I want to live in.  Inclusive, good-natured and friendly.  Well done, the Belgrade!

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Greg Powrie, Iain Lauchlan and Craig Hollingsworth messing about (Photo: Robert Day)

 


Train of Thought

THE RAILWAY CHILDREN

Belgrade Theatre, Coventry, Monday 11th September, 2017

 

With delicious irony, the fates delay the curtain up on this play centring around trains.  Ha, ha, universe!

But when this production from Exeter Northcott Theatre does get under way, it’s full steam ahead for a lovely piece of theatre.

When their father leaves them under mysterious circumstances, siblings Roberta, Phyllis and Peter move from London with their mother to a quaint but humble country cottage near to a railway.  As a distraction from their newfound poverty, the children take to waving at passengers on the trains, notably an ‘Old Gentleman’ who proves to be crucial to later plot developments.  They also strike up friendship with stationmaster Perks and his eldest son, John.

On the surface, the show drips with Brexiteer nostalgia for an England that never existed.  A closer look reveals this to be a place where people are nasty and suspicious when a foreigner in need enters their midst – but not E. Nesbit’s heroic children, whose only impulse is to help the poor man.  It’s a place where people worry about the expense of seeing the doctor – he runs some kind of private health insurance club the locals chip in to.

Against the backdrop of this society, the three kids learn that sharing is best, that people have pride and there is a difference between gifts and handouts.  I am gobsmacked; I had no idea the story was so political.  Dave Simpson’s adaptation of the classic novel does not shy away from the author’s socialist leanings.

As Roberta, the eldest, Millie Turner captures the essence of a girl between youth and maturity, while as her siblings Peter and Phyllis, Vinay Lad and Katherine Carlton are spirited in their immaturity.  The kids squabble but never lose their sense of decency and fair play.

The immensely likeable Stewart Wright narrates as the avuncular Perks; Callum Goulden does a nice comic turn as his tearaway offspring.  Will Richards makes a striking Russian, expressive before he even utters a word in any language, while Andrew Joshi’s increasingly knackered doctor provides much of the broader humour.  Joy Brook shines as the authoritative, firm but fair mother, all stiff upper lip and sacrifice for the sake of her children while espousing their Russian houseguest’s revolutionary ideals.

Timothy Bird’s set, costume and video designs not only evoke the Edwardian setting but add layers of artificiality, blending practical effects (a cut-out carriage is a hoot!) with projected animations, reminding us that this seemingly cosy place is not real.  Director Paul Jepson ensures the energy of his performers is not overshadowed by the impressive technical features of the production, and adds effective bits of business to keep the actors to the fore: a slow-motion moment during Perks’s birthday party, for example – there is some lovely character playing by Andrea Davy as Perks’s wife.

The iconic moments are all here.  Averting a rail disaster by ripping up Roberta’s red petticoat and waving it like mad.  The touching reunion… Misty-eyed?  Me?  Must just be a bit of steam in my eye.

All right, I admit it, I am touched right in the feels and the needle on my nostalgia dial is in the red, but most of all I am struck that this tale from a more innocent age over a century ago speaks so strongly to us today and has such currency.  There is a lot to be said for Englishness, for doing what is right, for supporting the underdog; just as there is a lot to be said against the nasty, narrow-minded, inward-looking, xenophobic attitudes of many English people today!  In 2017!  As if world events since the book first appeared mean nothing.

How much underwear do I have to tear up and wave around to stop this country going off the rails?

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Millie Turner, Vinay Lad and Katherine Carlton (Photo: Mark Dawson)